Trying to define bullying

By Dustin Petty
Staff writer

The national debate about bullying starts with a simple question: what is it?

Like many organizations, schools and legislatures across the county, the Obama administration tried to come up with a definition at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention in March 2011.

Kevin Epling, who lost his son Matt to suicide after being bullied by older students,was part of the panel asked to devise a definition. Epling remembered sitting in a White House office for hours because no one could agree on one definition.

“The funny thing is that with all of the discussion of the definition,” said Epling, “there was not consensus. There are several definitions available. I tried to cut out the fluff and get to the heart of why people bully – not how they bully.”

But what the White House conference finally settled on is a laundry list of what constitutes bullying and what doesn’t, where bullying takes place and what types of bullying exist. Essentially, as reported on the website, bullying must be aggressive, repetitive and include an imbalance of power.

This definition is the same that was adopted in 2008 by the National Parent-Teacher Association, a non-profit collaboration of educators and parents, citing the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

On the other hand, The National Education Association, a labor union representing more than 3.2 million educators, relied on the targets of bullying for a definition.

It used a study that asked lementary school students what they thought bullying was. The compilation of their thoughts became the definition put forward for teachers across the nation:

Bullying is defined as the use of one’s strength or popularity to injure, threaten, or embarrass another person. Bullying can be physical, verbal, or social. It is not bullying when two students of about the same strength argue or fight.

Organizations that work to serve students aren’t the only ones trying to define bullying.

As of March 2012, each state – with the exception of Montana – has adopted some measure of anti-bullying legislation, meaning that the states must define bullying themselves.

In 1999, Georgia was the first state to attempt anti-bullying legislation. Twelve years later, however, Georgia State Rep. Mike Jacobs found that when a local student committed suicide after being bullied,the law didn’t go far enough. It didn’t apply to elementary schools and it only defined bullying a physical harassment.

In 2011, the state passed a new anti-bullying law with a new, broadened definition. The new law required the Georgia Department of Education to give more specific guidelines to school districts on what constitutes bullying and how to deal with it.

The definition expanded to include any single acts of “intentional written, verbal, or physical act, which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass, or intimidate”, no longer defining bullying as repetitive physical acts.

The new law also recognized changes in the impact that computers and the Internet have on bullying. The revised bill allows for bullying to be “an act which occurs…by use of data or software that is accessed through a computer, computer systems, computer network, or other electronic technology of a local school system.”

It’s becoming evident to lawmakers and parents alike that bullying has changed yet still cannot be easily defined.

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